The local currency is the New Zealand Dollar (NZD). There are several ATMs on the main island of Rarotonga. However, bring cash for the smaller islands.
English and Cook Islands Maori “Rarotongan” are the official languages. You will find there are several dialects of Maori throughout the islands and most of the friendly locals speak English.
Best time to go
The Cook Islands boast year round sunshine so there is no bad time of year to travel. November to April has higher humidity and short tropical showers; you will find the best deals during these months. The dry season from June to October is less humid and the busiest months for tourism.
The Cook Islands have a stable year round tropical climate with two seasons: warm and rainy from December to March, cooler and dry from April to November. The rains generally come in brief afternoon showers that give relief from the heat and humidity.
The Cook Islands have something for everyone: families, honeymooners, snowbirds looking to get away for the winter, adventure seekers, and sun worshippers. Do not expect glitz or even the infrastructure of other island destinations; the Cooks are chilled out. There are no stoplights, no fast food chains, and it is local law that no buildings are taller than a coconut tree. It’s a South Pacific island nation still quite undiscovered by North American tourists. You can really immerse yourself in the local culture and live the island life in the Cooks.
Getting There From North America
The major airport and point of entry for international travellers is Rarotonga International Airport. The airport is located five to 30 minutes from all preferred hotels. The airport also serves the domestic airline, Air Rarotonga, for service to the other islands.
Major Air Routes from the United States
Air New Zealand operates one weekly direct flight to and from Rarotonga through Los Angeles, which takes around 10 hours. You can also travel to the Cook Islands on everyday flights through Auckland.
Major Air Routes from Canada
From Canada, you will need to travel through Los Angeles on the direct flight or via Auckland.
Essential Sights of the Cook Islands
The most populous of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga is a small circle island in the Pacific fringed by coral reefs and white sand beaches. Land lovers can rejoice as volcanic mountains and lush vegetation take up the interior. Rarotonga offers everything from backpacker accommodations to luxury villas. The island is 32km around with one main road encircling the island. You can easily get around Rarotonga by car, scooter, or the local bus that operates clockwise and counterclockwise. You can be as active or as relaxed as you choose on Rarotonga with adventure sports, Polynesian culture, and weather perfect for hammock swaying.
Visiting Aitutaki is a must on any visitor’s itinerary to the Cook Islands, whether on a day trip or spending several nights on this little paradise island. Aitutaki is just a 50-minute plane ride from Rarotonga and is the quintessential island paradise. It boasts several small motus (islets) over a stunning turquoise lagoon. The best way to explore Aitutaki is by lagoon cruise and don’t forget your passport for an unique stamp from the One Foot Island post office.
Other Highlights of the Cook Islands off the Beaten Path
Aitu, Mauke and Mangaia
To really get off the beaten path and return home with bragging rights for staying on a deserted island, venture further afield to one of the Cooks’ smaller islands such as Aitu (pronounced like a sneeze; a choo), Mauke, or Mangaia. These islands have not changed much in the last 25 years and do not receive many visitors. Thus, you will most likely be the only tourist on the island if you visit. You can truly escape to paradise and discover secluded beaches, rare tropical birds, ancient culture and plenty of eco-adventure to satisfy the most intrepid of travellers.
Top Activities and Experiences in the Cook Islands
Under the Sea
The Cooks are an aquatic playground. You can snorkel or scuba dive the pristine reefs or glide through the waters on a stand up paddleboard or kayak. Lagoon cruises are the best way to explore and snorkel Aitutaki. Plus, you’ll enjoy music, entertainment, and a mouthwatering BBQ on board. The waters are bountiful so try your luck at fishing.
With lush mountainous landscapes and small geographic sizes, the mainlands of the Cook Islands are easy to explore. There are several hiking treks across the islands you can take with an informative and entertaining guide. You can also navigate Rarotonga’s terrain on a mountain bike or leisurely explore the 32km island on a bicycle or e-bike. If cycling is not your speed, you can get off road with a buggy, quad bike, or 4WD vehicle on an inland adventure tour.
With tribal warfare, cannibalism, and ancient ceremonies, the Cook Islands are rich in history and culture. You can discover the Polynesian history and traditions by visiting a cultural village, taking a cultural tour, or experiencing a Polynesian show with song and dance. For a souvenir of your experience or a taste of the local cuisine and entertainment head to the Punanga Nui Markets or wander the Muri Night Markets.
Essential Cook Islander Foods to Try
Ika mata, meaning “raw fish” in Cook Islands Maori, is a traditional Polynesian dish. The fish, usually Marora (Flying Fish), is cured in freshly squeezed lime juice. It is then mixed in with coconut cream and chopped up vegetables, usually cucumber, bell peppers, and onion. Ika mata is served cold and is a refreshing meal on a hot day.
Rukau is a tasty mash of taro leaves, mixed with onions and salt. The leaves are picked when they are young and cooked three times in coconut cream and caramelized onions. Corn beef can be added to rukau or it can be enjoyed as a vegetarian delight.
The islanders have cultivated this sweet and salty dish from their abundance of sea cucumbers. Rori can be eaten raw served with lime and green bananas or cooked with sautéed onions and garlic.
A highlight for visitors to the Cook Islands is an umukai, a traditional feast held on special occasions. The meal is cooked in an uma (earth oven). The uma is filled with firewood and volcanic rocks and a grill made of banana wood is placed over the hot stones. The food wrapped in banana leaves is then cooked for approximately four hours steaming under dirt and banana leaves percolating together the natural juices and flavours.
Tips for Sustainable Travel
The Cook Islands draw visitors to their stunning reefs. However, these reefs are being threatened by coral bleaching due to pollution and climate change. Do your part in keeping the coral reef preserved for future generations by wearing reef safe sunscreen, being cautious not to step on or touch the coral, and reducing your use of plastics.
Where to Go Next
Many people fall in love with the beauty and warmth of the Cook Islands and make several return trips. For first time visitors it is best to travel for at least two weeks from North America. However, you can easily combine a short stay in the Cook Islands with a trip to New Zealand. Rejuvenate yourself in the Cooks and then take in the adventure of New Zealand or vice versa. If you long to experience the luxury of a Tahitian overwater bungalow but your budget doesn’t allow for it, a split stay between the two destinations could be your answer. Air Tahiti Nui operates a direct flight between Papeete and Rarotonga.
Most Popular Itineraries for the Cook Islands
The Live Like a Local itinerary includes your accommodation, flight, transfers, breakfast or meal kit with excursions that allow you to mingle and interact with the locals. With plenty of leisure time, you can be as active or as relaxed as you choose. The Cook Island Combo combines a stay on the two major islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki, for the most idyllic experience. The Cook Islands Long Stay takes advantage of the variety of affordable self-catering accommodation options, which make it the perfect destination to escape the harsh North American winters.